As Cleveland Rocks, WKYC Chief Rolls

Over the 20 years since she arrived in Cleveland, Micki Byrnes has become one of the city’s biggest boosters. So it’s only natural that Byrnes, president and general manager of WKYC, the market’s Tegna-owned NBC affiliate, is ending 2016 on a high after a year during which Cleveland shined in the national and international spotlight.

“There has been this pent-up excitement, and maybe validation, that the city has waited for, for a very long time,” says Byrnes, who has held WKYC’s top job since 2014. “The year was emotional, and it was exhausting— but it was an amazing year.”

Under Byrnes’ leadership, WKYC has become increasingly entrenched in the larger community, while drawing bigger audiences on-air and online—and earning Byrnes the honor of being named B&C’s GM of the Year in the country’s 25 largest markets. In 2016, the station’s Facebook videos alone drew more than 63 million views, up 1,352%. Reaching an underserved audience, the number of African-American viewers watching the station’s 11 p.m. news rose more than 31% from May to November. Roughly 20% of WKYC’s staff sits on community boards. Also in 2016, Byrnes was named a “Woman of Note” by Crain’s Cleveland Business and a “Woman of Achievement” by the YWCA.

After years in the dumps, Cleveland very conspicuously reversed course this year, starting in June, when the hometown basketball team, the Cavaliers, won the NBA Finals. It was not only the first title in the franchise’s 39-year history but the city’s first major pro sports championship since 1964. About 1.3 million fans showed up for the victory parade. In July, the city hosted the Republican National Convention, avoiding the predicted problems such as protests turning riotous. WKYC had spent two years in planning mode, working with organizers and mapping out its coverage.

And in October, the sports-mad city rooted the Cleveland Indians to their first World Series appearance since 1997. The team, which has not won the title since 1948, lost a seven-game thriller to the Chicago Cubs and now replaces the Cubs as the club with the longest Series drought. Still, the mania over the Tribe’s run made Clevelanders temporarily forget that their beloved Browns football team had managed not to win a single game this season.

WKYC staffers, Byrnes says, have been as gaga about Cleveland’s big wins as the rest of the city, reflected in full-scale coverage of events like the Cavs’ parade. Stations in the market pooled resources to track down the parade route, build scaffolding for crews to shoot from and hire a blimp to capture the most stable aerial footage possible.

Broadcasters in Cleveland (and its neighboring city of Akron) “are obviously all competitive, but everybody pulled together,” says Byrnes. “It was a beautiful day and it was like nothing I had ever seen,” she says, the excitement of the spectacle still palpable in her voice. “It was so frigging cool.”

A big reason why that moment had extra resonance was that Byrnes has believed in her adopted hometown’s potential since long before this year’s high points. From the time she joined WKYC as marketing director in 1997, Byrnes has invested her personal and professional time and energy in the Cleveland area. She has promoted its well-being by working hands-on with the agencies and organizations best-equipped to bring the city, and its inhabitants, out of the doldrums.

Byrnes has raised the bar for using local TV to promote the city and its future through fostering community, providing opportunity and education, among other efforts.

Byrnes’ hallmark “Where the Jobs Are” campaign leverages the airwaves and other platforms to spotlight northeastern Ohio’s burgeoning job opportunities in fields including science, technology and health care—and the education and training it takes to get them. She has advanced the initiative personally, too, visiting tech companies, manufacturing plants and nonprofits that assist workers to see what they do—and what they need—for herself.

Before the November election, WKYC championed a Cleveland school district tax levy that was on the ballot, using promotions and editorials to explain why it backed the measure, which voters ultimately approved.

The station’s brand, “See the Possible,” is supported by content across WKYC platforms spotlighting people who are behind the region’s resurgence. “We are just trying to make people aware of what’s going on,” says Byrnes. That kind of public awareness is critical for neighbors across the board to buy into Cleveland and its future. “Every neighborhood needs to feel they can be part of this momentum,” she says.

Byrnes’ civic efforts are on the ground in the community, too. In the months leading up to the Republican convention, Byrnes volunteered to help prep the city for the onslaught of media that poured into Cleveland to cover the event, while continuing with full force her work for other community organizations—the FBI Citizens Academic, Cleveland Food Bank and Cuyahoga Community College among them.

Dana Nagel, WKYC sales director, says Byrnes is an exemplary manager who, rather than creating barriers, often works in the trenches with station staffers, occasionally doing jobs like closing sales deals and posting videos.

“Micki isn’t a demanding, forceful leader. She inspires, she motivates, she leads by example,” Nagel says, adding that Byrnes’ influence is felt far beyond the station’s walls. “Micki’s vision clearly reflects the positive change and growth, needed and necessary, in our community that will allow us to climb out of the past and become successful today, tomorrow and for years to come,” Nagel says.

On the brink of a new year, Byrne says she is confident Cleveland will continue on its upward trajectory—and that WKYC will gladly be there to both cover and promote it.

It’s starting to become clear to people that the quality of life here is terrific,” she says. “As our kids all come home, as people move here to start businesses and create things and be part of this renaissance, I think we are feeling much more hopeful about who we are as a region. There’s a bit of a swagger going on—and I think it’s great after all these years.”